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Russians and Chechens Near Agreement

Nazran, Russia, June 10 (RFE/RL) -- Russian and Chechen separatist negotiators now say they are close to reaching an key accord to end the 18-month-old war in the Caucasus republic.

Russian negotiator Vladimir Zorin, quoted by AFP, said the Russian side believed Chechnya should, in his words, be demilitarized. He was apparently refering to a Russian troop pullout from the region. He said the issue was difficult, but he said Russian negotiators were waiting to sign a document.

Top Chechen separatist commander Aslan Maskhadov was quoted by AFP today saying Russia had agreed to end the blockade of several Chechen villages from tomorrow before a pullout of forces by August 30.

Chechen separatist spokesman Movladi Udugov said an accord could be signed today because there was progress on another issue - local Chechen elections. Udugov would only say "a small hope has appeared" on the issue. Russia had demanded local elections take place Sunday to coincide with the Russian presidential elections. The separatists demanded elections take place only after a Russian withdrawal.

Our correspondent says there is no confirmation of an ITAR-TASS report saying a preliminary agreement had been reached calling for a Russian troop withdrawal by July 7 and for Chechen fighters to disarm over a two-month period from that date.